Top-seeded Gators look to rebuild momentum in SEC tournament

A month ago, Florida was a monster. The Gators routinely hammered teams by 20 or 30 points and were ranked in the top five after trouncing Kentucky at home.

Now, after losing three of their past six, it is difficult to determine how good they really are, but they might not be far from recapturing their stride as they begin the SEC tournament at Bridgestone Arena on Friday against LSU (1 p.m., ESPNU). No. 13 Florida, the top seed, beat the Tigers by 22 in January.

If the Gators (24-6) advance, they will play Alabama or Tennessee in the semifinals Saturday (1 p.m., ABC).

Even during the recent slump, which included losses at Missouri, Tennessee and Kentucky, Florida’s defense looked strong. The Gators started this week third in the country in fewest points allowed at 53.2 per game and fourth in opponent shooting at 37.3 percent.

Those numbers have been fairly constant all season. In the past six games, UF allowed 55.7 points per game, just three more than it averaged in the first 24 games. It kept opponents to 38.1 percent field-goal shooting, compared to 37.1 percent previously.

“Nothing has really changed,” coach Billy Donovan said.

As far as personnel, it has been a season full of change. Donovan had to replace Erving Walker, a three-year starting point guard, and top-five NBA Draft pick Bradley Beal.

Donovan did well with that project despite very little going according to plan. Of the Gators’ eight-man rotation, only starting guard Kenny Boynton played in every game. UF’s top reserve, forward Will Yeguete, missed seven games in February due to a knee injury and did not get back to his usual minutes until Saturday’s game at Kentucky.

Yeguete’s progress will be tested this weekend. If the Gators reach Sunday’s championship game (1 p.m., ABC), he will play three games in three days, but did not seem worried.

“I don’t think you have any choice,” Yeguete said. “Everybody has to deal with that to win.”

Two other key subs, Michael Frazier II and Casey Prather, also missed time, and the Gators opened their season in transition with guard Scottie Wilbekin suspended for an undisclosed off-court issue.

“The biggest thing you want are guys that want to get better,” Donovan said. “I think we’ve got that kind of group of guys. So what is it going to take for us to play at that highest level, to play our best game? I’m hopeful that our best game is still in front of us.

“We’ve had to deal with guys coming in and out of our lineup, those kinds of things. That’s probably dampened our ability to play at the highest level. I still think that’s out there for us.”

It might have disrupted the offensive flow as well. Florida averaged 16.3 assists per game in the first 24 and 10.5 since then. Its percentage of field goals off an assist fell from 60.1 to 45.

Another area that requires major improvement is rebounding. After averaging a plus-5.8 advantage in that category the first 24 games, the Gators are at minus-5 per game over their last six.

One player with the power to turn that around is center Patric Young.

He is scoring 10.5 points and grabbing 6.5 rebounds per game this season, but averaged just 4.2 rebounds during the past six games.

Donovan was publicly flummoxed by Young’s two rebounds in 24 minutes against Kentucky.

“That clearly, to me, is an effort issue,” he said.

Regardless of what happens in Nashville this week, the Gators are headed to the NCAA tournament. They currently are project as a No. 3 seed by ESPN and CBS, and even a loss to LSU would not change that much. If they snap back with a strong SEC tournament, though, the Gators could jump back into the hunt for a No. 1 or 2 seed by the time selections are finalized Sunday.